Category Archives: Writing Advice

From the Archives: Listen to Your Inner Voice

To celebrate the one year anniversary of my blog (March 13th), I’m publishing select posts throughout the year under the title “From the Archives” for those who may have missed them the first time around.

Next up…Listen to Your Inner Voice

As the local high schools prepare for commencement ceremonies this weekend, I find myself reminiscing about my own high school graduation.

I was proud to have completed another milestone and at seventeen, I was almost officially an adult. I was looking forward to my next adventure in college. My mother had always joked that she and my father raised the five of us to be independent and then realized they had to live with us when we’d try to assert that independence. Obviously, I was more than ready to strike out on my own. Although I looked forward to that change, I was also saddened and a little uneasy by what it would bring. My whole world existed within a radius no wider than 20 miles.  I had traveled outside that small circle on a few occasions. It was both unsettling and exhilarating to leave the comfort of all I had known.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” J.R.R. Tolkien

(Here I go with the quotes again). Looking back on it now I realize I had no clue where it would take me or how long it would be until I accepted who I really was. I had always been good at math, but not exceptional. I just didn’t enjoy it enough to put in any effort into studying. My mother was a math teacher, the head of the math department at my high school, She taught the talented and gifted classes, so naturally, I should pursue a career that involved numbers. I chose Accounting and ignored what my instinct was telling me. I’d always been something of a dreamer, a creative being who spent hours drawing and filled entire notebooks with poems (hopefully any record of those juvenile musings has long since been destroyed).

“Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.”  Edgar Allan Poe

But my observation showed fortune doesn’t favor the dreamer, so I spent years suppressing that intuition. My idea of what I should become hinged on the opinions of others and what society expected. Success meant acquiring wealth, power, and possessions; at least that is how society had defined it. I was reluctant to give my opinion any value. I was just a kid after all, what did I know? Actually…it turns out I knew more than I thought. I discovered that another rung on the career ladder and a bigger house still left me unsatisfied. Why? Because society’s definition of success is a lie. Shouldn’t “happiness” figure most prominently in that definition?

If I were to give advice to the graduates this weekend, I’d tell them to listen to that inner voice. It is far wiser than we give it credit. No one knows you better than you know yourself. We each have our own unique combination of talents, abilities, experiences and perspectives. If you want to truly be successful, maximize the qualities that make you…you. Do what makes you happy. Ignore what others say you should do or be. Embrace who you are; otherwise, you waste the opportunity to leave your unique imprint on this world that says you were here and all of your experiences, talents and abilities mattered.

Since I’m discussing advice for graduates, I wanted to share some of my favorite commencement speeches. Take their advice: appreciate the benefits of failure and make good art.

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From the Archives: IT’S ALIVE!!! Creating Characters that Come to Life

To celebrate the one year anniversary of my blog (March 13th), I’m publishing select posts throughout the year under the title “From the Archives” for those who may have missed them the first time around. Next up…

IT’S ALIVE!!! Creating Characters that Come to Life

Do the characters you write about become real to you? Do you sometimes find yourself wondering what they’re up to as if you could simply call them up and chat? I must admit I have done that once. Okay maybe more than once.

Sure, they’re a figment of your imagination, and you’d do well to remember that, but creating good fictional characters involves more than mere physical description. In fact, some authors don’t provide a physical description at all; they leave it up to the imagination of the reader. What I’ve learned is that physical description is the least important part of good characterization.

If you want your characters to come to life, to know what they would say or do or feel, you need to get into their heads. You need to understand what motivates them. To do that you need to know where they’ve been. What has happened to them in the past? What was their childhood like? What environment did they grow up in? What are their likes and dislikes? What are their hopes and fears? What have they experienced that would give rise to any quirks, phobias or disorders? Do they have any special talents or abilities? Do they have any unique expressions? How do they treat other people?

“Sow a thought, and you reap an act; Sow an act, and you reap a habit; Sow a habit, and you reap a character; Sow a character, and you reap a destiny.”  ―    Anonymous

Of course, all of this is up to you. The answers to these questions come from your imagination. When you create a character that goes well beyond physical description, it is as if you have brought that character to life. They not only become real to you but they become real to your readers. The reader becomes invested in your book and that is the main goal.

“I will go to my grave in a state of abject endless fascination that we all have the capacity to become emotionally involved with a personality that doesn’t exist.”  ―    Berkeley Breathed

From the Archives: Words of Wisdom on Writing from the King

To celebrate the one year anniversary of my blog (March 13th), I’m publishing select posts throughout the year under the title “From the Archives” for those who may have missed them the first time around. Next up…

Words of Wisdom on Writing from the King

Yesterday I published, Reading Fiction: Guilty Pleasure or Worthy Pursuit? In that post I stated that I only read fiction. Well it’s just one day later and I must retract that statement.

I received a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing in the mail yesterday afternoon. Yeah, it’s obviously not fiction but it’s a book on writing fiction so cut me some slack, okay? I’ve read several excerpts in the past but decided I needed to read the entire book. Well, I couldn’t put it down.

Cover of "On Writing:  A Memoir of the Cr...
Cover of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

It’s a book on writing but it doesn’t read like an instruction manual and that, is a lesson on writing right there. It felt like I had sat down with a wise, yet fun-loving uncle as he imparted nuggets of wisdom, but first hooked me in by sharing funny anecdotes from his childhood.

The section where he offered advice on writing is a must read for any aspiring author. There are many great tips but I’ll highlight just two (sorry, but you’ll have to buy the book to get the full benefit).

King believes “plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.” His advice was reassuring because I’m not big on plotting and I’d wondered if that was somehow a weakness. I have a general idea of the story I want to tell and create very detailed character bios, but they are mostly for my reference only. Once I’ve completed the character bios it’s almost as if I have breathed life into them. They become real and end up telling me what comes next and it’s often different from what I had originally imagined.

He also believes that factual information belongs in the background of your story unless you’d like your book to read like a user’s manual or history text. He mentioned a couple of authors who are a little heavy on the factual information and then made this statement:

“I sometimes think that these writers appeal to a large segment of the reading population who feel that fiction is somehow immoral, a low taste which can only be justified by saying, ‘Well, ahem, yes, I do read {Fill in the author’s name here}, but only on airplanes and in hotel rooms that don’t have CNN; also I learned a great deal about {Fill in appropriate subject here}.’

It’s interesting that I just published a post on this topic yesterday. I love it when that happens. It’s like the moon and stars are aligning for some future event.

At the end of the book he tells about an accident that occurred during the time he was writing it. While going on his afternoon walk, he was struck and almost killed by a reckless driver. This part was mesmerizing because I was almost killed in a car accident too. Then he said it occurred the third week in June. Hmm…my accident did too. What are the odds it was on the same day? Well, what do you know? We were both almost killed by drivers who couldn’t control their vehicles…on the same day, June 19th, but eleven years apart, mine occurring in 1988 and his in 1999. But there was another similarity: the driver who caused his accident was reaching behind his seat, trying to prevent a dog from opening a cooler full of meat and the driver who caused my accident was reaching behind his seat, trying to open a cooler for another beer.

As he talked about the long road to recovery, I recalled my own. Maybe I’ll write about it? No, not today.

Instead, I closed the book with a smile on my face and thought, “That was a good story. Thanks, Uncle Steve.”

Finding Your Writing Zen

ZZ is for Zen

What is Zen?

According to urbandictionary.com, Zen is “a total state of focus that incorporates a togetherness of body and mind. Zen is a way of being. It also is a state of mind. Zen involves dropping illusion and seeing things without distortion created by your own thoughts.”

In his book, Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury tells us the following are necessary to achieve Zen as a writer: Continue reading Finding Your Writing Zen

You Are the Hero of Your Own Story

YY is for YOU

During this A to Z Blogging event, I spent some time on the central character of the story: the hero. I discussed the four main roles of the hero and how his progression from one role to the next is necessary for character growth. I discussed Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth (i.e., the hero’s journey): a story that repeats throughout history and deeply resonates within each of us. Now, I want to remind you of something so elemental, it’s often overlooked.

“You are the hero of your own story.” ~ Joseph Campbell

What role are you playing?

Are you the orphan? Do you feel abandoned? Outcast? Alone? Or are you the wanderer, unsure of your path? Are you searching for answers? Seeking help from others? Learning new skills? Facing obstacles? Reacting to the opposition? Have you transitioned to the warrior? You’ve acquired the necessary knowledge, skills, and aid to achieve your goal. Now you’re proactively pursuing it. Maybe you’ve matured to the martyr where you’re willing to make sacrifices to achieve what is most important to you.

Chances are you’ve played all of these roles at one time or another as you live out the mini-plots and subplots of your life. But…what role have you taken in the central plot of your life? Continue reading You Are the Hero of Your Own Story

Words to “X” from Your Writing

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know I’m a day behind on my A to Z posts. Shoot me. Go ahead. Put me out of my misery because I’ve hit a wall with three posts left.

 X
X is for…well, “X”

Let’s discuss words you should “X” from your writing. If you’re like me, you may have occasionally padded your writing in school to meet minimum word or page counts. No? Does this scenario sound familiar?

It’s 2 a.m. Your history essay is due in a few hours, but you’ve fallen short of the page requirement. You’ve racked your brain and can’t think of anything else to write. What do you do? Continue reading Words to “X” from Your Writing

What a Wonderful World

I stumbled upon a review of The Lord of the Rings several months ago where the reviewer gave the book one star. {GASP!} What? Who doesn’t like The Lord of the Rings? Down, Tolkienites. We’re all entitled to an opinion. This reviewer didn’t appreciate the detail, the lengthy descriptions of the settings, and on and on…

Okay, okay, I get that. I don’t particularly like it either—in contemporary fiction, but it’s expected in fantasy and science fiction genres because the story takes place in a world unlike the one we live in. The description of that world is integral to the story. It’s referred to as world building and The Lord of the Rings is a fine example of it. Some would say it’s the best example, like…evah.

WW is for World Building

What is World Building?

World building is the process of creating an imaginary world that differs from our reality by modifying elements such as climate, geography, history, races, beliefs, government, architecture, languages, and so on.

In his book, J.R.R. Tolkien fashioned an imaginary period in our world’s history where races of hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls, and wizards existed beside men. He created a rich back story for the relations of these races and drew detailed maps of the realms each occupied. He invented grand cities and quaint villages with distinct architecture, governments, customs, etc. He blended mythical elements with the real world so seamlessly that you almost wonder if this period in time actually existed. He went so far as to invent languages. He did this last part so well that you can translate your name into Elvish at this site (my Elven name is Ireth Faelivrin, by the way).

Despite his attention to detail, some readers would’ve preferred if Tolkien had allowed them to use their imagination. So this got me to thinking. What if the world building was absent in The Lord of the Rings? What if it was left up to the imagination of the reader? How could the story vary from the original?

If the Prancing Pony had been referred to simply as an inn, where would Frodo meet Aragorn for the first time? Howard Johnson’s? The Holiday Inn?

howardjohnsons
hojo.com

 

 

 

 

 

tripadvisor.com

Please, no.

And Merry and Pippin: would they make frequent pit stops for second breakfast and “elevenses” at iHop? Jack in the Box? McDonalds? Taco Bell?

What about the Mines of Moria? What would they look like? A primitive mine from the California Gold Rush?

mines
commons.wikimedia.org

Gollum’s role as a guide would be obsolete with modern technology.  Frodo would just whip out his iPhone, type in “Mount Doom” and view a map of Middle-earth.  Done!

When Frodo and Sam are exhausted from traveling and weak from days without food or sleep, they would just pop the top on a 5-hour energy drink, chug it, and charge up the mountain.

5hourenergy.com
5hourenergy.com

Heh. Heh. So I’m exaggerating,  but Tolkien created such a wonderful world, I can’t imagine it without the elements he so painstakingly planned.

What do you think about world building? Do you appreciate the details in Tolkien’s work or would you have preferred it be left to the imagination?

To learn more about world building watch the video How to Build a Fictional World by Kate Messner

To see what other A to Z participants are blogging about this month, please click here to link to their blogs.

Creating a Credible Villain

Today’s post is all about that character we love to hate: the antagonist, also known as the villain.

VV is for Villain

an•tag•o•nist noun \an-ˈta-gə-nist\: a person who opposes another person. Synonyms: adversary, enemy, foe, archenemy, nemesis, bane, competitor, rival, villain.

The antagonist can also be a group of characters (e.g., an institution) or a force (e.g., the weather), but for purposes of this discussion it will focus on the individual as the villain. Before we begin concocting our villain, we must understand the role the antagonist plays in the story.

What is the role of the antagonist?

The antagonist should serve as:
• An opposing force
• An obstacle for the hero’s goal
• A worthy opponent

The villain is one of the two most important characters in the story. Some believe it is more important than the hero. Without the villain, there is no opposing force to create conflict and tension, and no obstacle for the hero to overcome. It’s important to note that the villain should be more powerful than the hero. This is necessary for the hero to grow (character arc) in order to win and be truly heroic.

“The hero and the bad guy are a matched set and should be of equal skill and strength, with the bad guy being just slightly more powerful than the hero because he is willing to go to any lengths to win.” ~ Blake Snyder

What are the ingredients for a credible villain? Continue reading Creating a Credible Villain

U is for Uhh….

Yeah. I was at a loss again. What was I going to write about for U? I didn’t have a clue (hey that rhymes) what to do, but then I knew (okay I’ll stop). This A to Z Challenge is starting to have an effect on me. I’ll let you decide what kind.

Anyway, let’s talk about unreliable narrative.

UU is for Unreliable Narrative

What is unreliable narrative?

Unreliable narrative occurs when a character describes his experiences, but misinterprets the true nature of events. It’s accurate from his perspective, but distorted for reasons such as the following:

• Naivety
• Ignorance
• Prejudice

The author will often provide clues, if it’s not already obvious, that the narrator’s viewpoint is off.

Why use unreliable narrative?

Unreliable narrative can make your character more believable. A good example of this is a story told from a child’s point of view (naivety). If the child sounds like an adult, then the character doesn’t ring true to the audience.

Unreliable narrative can reveal the true nature of a character, be it the twisted mindset of a villain or the naive benevolence of a mentally challenged protagonist like Forest Gump.

In fact, let’s look at Forest Gump as an example of unreliable narrative. He is one of my favorite characters played by one of my favorite actors (I don’t know any actor except Tom Hanks who could pull off this role).

Here is Forest Gump’s perception of the following events:

On being named Forest:

“Now, when I was a baby, Momma named me after the great Civil War hero, General Nathan Bedford Forrest. She said we was related to him in some way. And what he did was, he started up this club called the Ku Klux Klan. They’d all dress up in their robes and their bedsheets and act like a bunch of ghosts or spooks or something. They’d even put bedsheets on their horses and ride around. And anyway, that’s how I got my name, Forrest Gump. Momma said that the Forrest part was to remind me that sometimes we all do things that, well, just don’t make no sense.”

On Jenny’s father:

“Was some kind of a farmer. He was a very loving man – he was always kissing and touching her and her sisters.”

On Jenny hiding from her father:

“Mama always said God is mysterious. He didn’t turn Jenny into a bird that day. Instead, he had the po-lice say Jenny didn’t have to stay in that house no more. She was to live with her grandma, just over on Creekmore Avenue, which made me happy, ’cause she was so close. Some nights, Jenny’d sneak out and come on over to my house, just ’cause she said she was scared. Scared of what, I don’t know. But I think it was her grandma’s dog. He was a mean dog. Anyway, Jenny and me was best friends all the way up through high school.”

On serving in Vietnam:

“Now, they told us that Vietnam was going to be very different from the United States of America. Except for all the beer cans and the barbecues, it was.”

“I got to see a lot of countryside. We would take these real long walks. And we were always lookin’ for this guy named Charlie.”

On being shot in the buttocks (you must pronounce that but-tocks):

“They said it was a million dollar wound. But, the army must keep that money, cause I still ain’t seen a nickel of that million dollars.”

On John Lennon’s assassination:

“Some years later that nice young man from England was on his way to see his little boy and was signing autographs – FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON AT ALL – somebody shot him.”

On John F. Kennedy’s assassination:

“Sometime later – FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON – somebody shot that nice young president when he was riding in his car and a few years after that, somebody shot his little brother too – only he was in the hotel kitchen. Must be hard being brothers.”

On purchasing IPO shares of Apple stock:

“So I never went back to work for Lieutenant Dan, though he did take care of my Bubba-Gump money. He got me invested in some kind of fruit company. And so then I got a call from him saying we don’t have to worry about money no more.”

On Jenny angrily heaving rocks at her father’s abandoned house:

“Sometimes I guess there just aren’t enough rocks.”

Do you see how unreliable narrative shows the true nature of Forest Gump?  Can you think of other examples of unreliable narrative? Have you written a story from that perspective? If not, would you consider writing a story using unreliable narrative?

Now, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite scenes from the movie. Actually, they’re all good. Maybe I’ll go watch it again.  🙂

 

 

To see what other A to Z participants are blogging about this month, please click here to link to their blogs.